Summary of "Mass Media and Environmental Conflict: America's Green Crusades"

 

Summary of

Mass Media and Environmental Conflict: America's Green Crusades

By Mark Neuzil and William Kovarik

Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff


Citation: Mark Neuzil and William Kovarik. Mass Media and Environmental Conflict: America's Green Crusades. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996.


The environmental movement in the United States is inextricably linked to the nations mass media systems. As such, "America's Green Crusades" cannot be fully understood without a close and careful evaluation of how TV, newspapers, books, magazines, and other outlets of popular and non-mainstream press influence our interpretations of and information about these events. In Mass Media and Environmental Conflict, Neuzil and Kovarik undertake this task by examining the role of the mass media in a diverse selection of both famous and underreported environmental conflicts surfacing prior to the 1960's.

Through these case analyses, the authors explore how power and influence is expressed and exercised through the mass media, how environmental themes and events are reported, represented, and constructed through media campaigns, and how an environmentalist ethic is spread and circulated through media channels. Through this work, the authors provide a novel approach to studying the mass media by looking back to cases often overlooked by contemporary media and environmental scholars. As such, they examine how media outlets functioned in producing and stimulating widespread social and cultural change and how these changes engendered a new, green consciousness in the United States.

The focus of this book centers around the topic of social change and the role of the mass media in facilitating or inhibiting this change. Examining multiple positions on the continuum of the mass media's influence on social change, the authors explore and explain the tensions between competing theoretical approaches. Regardless of the particular theoretical position under analysis, the authors hold that the media is instrumental in defining and bringing a particular social problem into "the public's" conscious awareness. Exploring how both powerful (government, politicians, and business people) and traditionally powerless groups (activists, minority groups, and workers) use this function of the media to further or inhibit particular environmental initiatives, Neuzil and Kovarik provide a comprehensive historical analysis of the scope of mass media communication in environmental conflicts.

The book's introduction explores the theoretical themes and tensions running throughout each of the case analyses. Although impossible to cover the vast, interdisciplinary literature on mass media and the environment, the authors comprehensively introduce the major themes and perspectives necessary to understand the theoretical position of their arguments. The remainder of the book consists of seven case studies documenting a diverse range of environmental conflicts.

Set in a comparative format, the first two chapters juxtapose the specialized and mainstream media coverage of two environmental conflicts. The first chapter explores the specialized media's coverage of the conflict over wild game management through the publication of a magazine called Forest and Stream. This magazine facilitated the first coordinated effort of hunters and policy makers in creating an ethical standard for gaming in the 1870s and 80's. The second chapter focuses on the mainstream media coverage of the Radium Girls, a group of female paint factory workers stricken with radium poisoning while on the job, and the efforts of the Consumer's League to reveal to the public the harms incurred by these non-unionized workers. Attracting the attention of New York journalist Walter Lippmann, the story of Radium Girls made its way into the mainstream press. This coverage was instrumental in paving the way for movements protecting and promoting the idea of workplace safety and creating collaborative links between the press and government agencies.

Chapters Three, Four, and Five explore the links between the mass media and social change by focusing on media coverage of three public land disputes. In Chapter Three, Neuzil and Kovarik explore key concerns facing the American public with increasing urbanization, industrialization, and westward expansion: "What to do about the wild and unusual lands and how to best cope with the loss of the Frontier?" (p.54). Through a "loose coalition" of media, environmental groups, and the bureaucratic governmental power structure, these forces were able to publicize the public purchase of Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks and other monuments and wilderness areas to create a "new era of land management" (p.80). Chapter Four continues along the theme of national park management and land conservation by examining the role of muckraking journalism in the exposure and amplification of the Great Alaskan Land Fraud. Through a thorough media investigation of a fraudulent land grab scheme fronted by a group of powerful, moneyed interests, Colliers Magazine was able to elicit public outrage over the specious land deals and effectively blew the whistle on the offending individuals and parties. Whereas Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the collaborative outcomes of a media, activist, and business coalition, Chapter 5 explores what happens when these cooperative efforts fall through and unravel by analyzing the Hetch Hetchy Dam controversy in California. The breakdown in this "loose coalition" led the mainstream and environmental press to construct conflicting interpretations and problem definitions. Losing the institutional and bureaucratic support, the views of the environmentalists were lost to a mass and local media agenda that sided more favorably with the existing power structure.

Chapters Six and Seven close the book by examining the role of the media in dramatizing environmental events. In Chapter Six, Neuzil and Kovarik explore the brief but intense dispute over ethyl leaded gasoline in the 1920, and explain how the media was instrumental in facilitating a conflict management function in this particular dispute. By relying on findings from the scientific community, the rhetorical maneuvers of the oil and auto industries garnered hard, scientific evidence that advocated the use of leaded gasoline. Public health advocates believed that there were different options for dealing with the "knocking" problem of automobile engines, but were unable to contest the evidence due to lack of familiarity with the problem. Although their voices were heard, the opponents of ethyl leaded gasoline surfaced merely as a competing perspective in a media controversy that did little to enlighten the public to the scientific validity of the arguments. This type of reporting facilitated a conflict management function but left the ultimate decision to the bureaucrats and regulatory agencies instead of fostering a true dialogue between the competing perspectives. In Chapter Seven, the authors explore the role of dramatic events in eliciting social change. They document the media dramatization of a "killer smog" that smothered the town of Danora, Pennsylvania in 1948 led to an acute public awareness of air pollution which subsequently "mobilized and energized" movements against airborne pollutants. As a result of this highly publicized event, environmental reporting became a commonplace routine for the mass media, bringing environmental and public health issues into the public eye. However, this event spawned an anti-environmentalist rhetoric that attacks activists for their lack of scientific proof and rigor. Chapter Eight follows the multiple threads running throughout the book and provides a set of concluding remarks to the multiple case studies.

In sum, the authors provide a comprehensive account of an oft-neglected segment of environmental studies: the history of the environmental movement before 1960. This book will be of great value to scholars interested in environmental and political history, students of journalism and the mass media, environmental and social activists, and a general readership interested in exploring the links between environment and media. Although looking into the past, this book sheds light on contemporary environmental conflicts by examining how ideas are shaped by media accounts and how competing groups can find common ground by participating collaboratively in media research and reporting. Despite paying little, if any, attention to modern media outlets such as television or the Internet, the work in this book does provide a rich methodological basis for extending these ideas to more modern media forms.